A Peace Dilemma: Afghan Peace Talks Require a New Approach

Afghanistan’s approach to peace talks with the Taliban requires a new strategy that includes a regional approach, the involvement of the international community, and the support of the United States. All these factors are critical to guarantee a lasting peace deal.

On 6 October 2017, Radio Mashaal released an update on peace talks in Afghanistan. The report suggests, in accordance with a new peace strategy, “Afghan Taliban detainees would be released from Pakistani custody in exchange for Pakistani militants currently detained in Afghanistan.”[1] Meanwhile, Voice of America reports political figures from Afghanistan will meet with Taliban representatives  in Qatar in mid-November 2017. “We are gathering in Dubai to discuss the possibilities of peace with the Taliban” said Ziaul Haq Amarkhail former head of Field Operations at the Independent Election Commission and a delegate from Afghanistan in a recent interview with Voice of America. “This is a great opportunity to end this long-lasting war,” he concluded.

Ahmed Rashid, author of Pakistan on the Brink (Ahmed Rashid noted in Pakistan on the Brink/YouTube)

During the tenure of former President Hamid Karzai, peace negotiators took similar actions, but they yielded few positive results. For instance, Ahmed Rashid noted in Pakistan on the Brink, “...in 2010 ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] succeeded in persuading Karzai to hold talks with Haqqani representatives, which resulted in a pledge by them not to attack Kabul, although that cease-fire only lasted nine months.”[2] In February 2014, then-president Karzai released 65 Taliban fighters to help advance the progress of peace talks, but this did not bring the Taliban to the negotiation table.[3] To this day the Haqqani Network remains one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the region.

Moreover, from 2008 to 2015, Karzai’s brothers were talking to the Taliban leaders in Dubai. According to Rashid, “Meetings between Karzai’s brothers and some Taliban leaders including Syed Tayyab Agha a secretary and long-term aid to Mullah Muhammad Omar continued but they did not move the process forward.”[4] Just like in the instance of the Haqqani Network, releasing detainees and holding secret talks failed to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. Likewise, the new strategy reported by Radio Mashaal  is not really a new strategy and can be expected to produce similar results.

The involvement of countries in the region such as Russia, Iran, India, and Saudi Arabia—in addition to those states such as China, Pakistan, and the U.S. already deeply involved in the process—remains another question to be addressed by this new strategy. Each of these countries can help to influence individuals within the Taliban to change the nature of the negotiations. For example, Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries that recognized the Taliban government. Currently, many Taliban commanders remain within Saudi Arabia’s ability to influence. Abdul Hai Mutmain, former Media Representative of the Taliban and Secretary of Mullah Mohammad Omar, in his recent Pashtu book, noted:.

Mullah Mohammad Omar (Radio Free Europe)

“Mullah Mohammad Omar was loyal to Saudi Arabia and would listen to Saudi National Radio during the last sessions of the Ramadan months. So, it is imperative for our movement to not only remain loyal to Saudi Arabia but also avoid any misleading statements toward Saudi Arabia.”[5] 

Saudi Arabia can play a greater role through religious pressure to bring the Taliban into negotiation table.

Finally, the new strategy will fail unless it involves the international community—especially the U.S. The Taliban consider themselves Afghan nationalists rather than international jihadists and there is little evidence of a global threat in the Taliban’s post-9/11 messages.[6] The Taliban does not promote an international jihadi agenda rather, the majority of their messages, statements, articles, and books are focused on the Afghan population.[7] In this way the Taliban seek to restore an identity lost after 9/11, and an identity that was destroyed by the international community, and the American led intervention in Afghanistan. In such a case, it would be seem that what the Taliban seeks is for the international community to recognize them as a national political opposite to the government of Afghanistan rather than a terrorist group. For example, in Kabul in late 2010, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan told Rashid, “The fundamental problem is between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Afghan government is the secondary problem. The talks we want must involve the international community and end with international guarantees.”[8]

In conclusion, U.S. diplomatic pressure on  Pakistan should increase until Pakistan completely ends its support, active or tacit, for the Taliban. The U.S. diplomatic pressure on Pakistan will provide the Afghan government with an opportunity to pursue a lasting peace deal with the Taliban. Afghanistan must use this advantage and approach peace talks with the Taliban from a new, strategic perspective. The Afghan government should lead peace talks and in doing so, it needs to bring the international community to the table with them. The Afghan government must approach Russia, Iran, India, and especially Saudi Arabia to take part and responsibility in the pace talks.The Afghan Government should not release or exchange prisoners at this time as they remain a valuable point of leverage for encouraging the Taliban to talk.   

Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani (C) speaks during a one day meeting with Pakistan, United State and Chinese delegations in Kabul, Afghanistan January 18, 2016. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Abdul Rahman Rahmani is an Afghan army-aviation pilot and the author of the book, Afghanistan A Collection of Stories. Rahmani is currently a student at Expeditionary Warfare School, Marine Corps University in Quantico Virginia. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the Afghan National Army, the Ministry of Defense, or the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

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Header Image: Former Afghan Taliban fighters turn in their weapons as part of a government reconciliation process in Jalalabad, on Feb. 24, 2016. (NoorullahShirzada/AFP/Getty Images)


[1] To Cultivate Taliban’s Trust, Afghanistan Working On Releasing Prisoners. Gandhara. 2017. Retrieved from: https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/pakistan-afghanistan-taliban-prisoners/28777959.html

[2] Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan on the Brink, The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Penguin Books Ltd. England. P.135. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are the primary intelligence agency in Pakistan.

[3] Karzai Releases 65 Taliban insurgents, Businessinsider. 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/us-furious-as-afghan-president-karzai-releases-65-taliban-insurgents-2014-2

[4] Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan on the Brink, The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Penguin Books Ltd. England. P.127.

[5] Mutmain Abdul Hai, Mullah Mohammad Omer, The Taliban, and Afghanistan. 2017. Kabul, Afghanistan. p.204.

[6] Ibid. p.321

[7] For a full treatment of this issue, see Fawaz Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[8] Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan on the Brink, The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Penguin Books Ltd. England. P.121